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Overcrowding in America’s Prisons Essay


America’s prison system has become extremely overcrowded and managing it has become a job of staggering proportions. In 2001, there were 1.4 million men and women incarcerated in state and federal correctional institutions. This overcrowding has increased the cost to operate prisons at alarming rates. Due to a high recidivism rate, many experts believe that lack of rehabilitation has played a great role in this increase.

One of the major reasons that prisons have become overcrowded is that crime control strategies and legislative changes have favored longer sentences. These approaches have taken several forms that, when combined, have incarcerated people for longer periods of time with less possibility for early release. Many factors such as new offenses, mandatory sentences, lengthening terms, and habitual offender laws, have added to prison overcrowding.

Although an exact cost can not be associated with overcrowding, we can look at present costs incurred in prison and anticipate their increase as the system takes on more and more inmates. When looking at the cost of overcrowding, we not only have to look at the cost to taxpayers per inmate but also construction cost needed to build the new prisons to relieve the overcrowding. The operating cost for a prison over its life span cost about fifteen to twenty times the original construction cost.

Overcrowding causes serious depravation in the quality of life for everyone in a correctional institution. Overcrowding may cause a number of problems such as emotional stress, increase in disciplinary infractions, and some physical health problems. Overcrowding also causes litigation forcing the federal and state prisons to build new facilities to relieve overcrowding.

Rehabilitation has been around for many years and throughout those years the chance to study models good and bad have given us much research to work with in knowing which rehabilitation models work and which do not. Rehabilitation programs should change or modify the offender or help them to modify themselves, as well as changing or modifying life circumstances and social opportunities. Some types of rehabilitation programs in use are mental health and counseling programs, educational programs, and substance abuse programs.

The results of many studies are statistically aggregated and assessed as one sample an their findings showed that effective programs reduced the reentry rate by approximately 36.4 percent in 1998. Generally 25 to 35 percent of the experimental treatment programs studied achieved favorable results. With statistics like these, I feel we can reduce the number of repeat offenders through the use of effective rehabilitation programs.

Overcrowding in America’s Prisons

Can rehabilitation help lower the growing numbers of repeat offenders?

With overcrowding, managing America’s prisons has become a job of staggering proportions. As of December 31, 2001. Over 1.4 million men and women were incarcerated in state and federal correctional institutions. Operating cost of U.S. prisons rose 224 percent between 1980 and 1994. The Federal Bureau of Prisons estimates that operating costs could grow $4.7 billion by 2006. Many factors have led tot this increase such as mandatory sentencing and recidivism of offenders. Many in the field believe that lack of rehabilitation training geared toward marketable skills, along with no treatment of substance abuse, have played a great role in this increase.

One of the major reasons that prisons have become overcrowded is crime control strategies and legislative changes have favored longer sentences. These approaches have taken several forms that, when combined, have incarcerated more people for longer periods of time with less possibility for early release. There was a 22 percent increase in arrests from 1986 to 1997. Overcrowding has also created a problem with understaffing in the “job rich 1990’s”. However, as the crime rate increases and people become more frightened, the politician’s answer with “tougher sentencing legislation” and not rehabilitation.

The desire to reform convicted offenders has a long history in policy and practice in the American correctional system. As early as the eighteenth century to the present, politicians, correctional professionals, religious leaders, scholars and prison inmates themselves have participated in an ongoing reform movement and experiments all designed to rehabilitate lawbreakers, towards being law-abiding, self supporting individuals.

What I will look at in this paper is the overcrowding in today’s prison and some of the causes and costs of this overcrowding. I will define rehabilitation and what is has meant throughout history while exploring what options are available in today’s prisons and the effectiveness of those options. In conclusion, I will show that if we refocus the system on rehabilitation and not merely the warehousing of criminals; we could reduce the number of repeat offenders and relieve some of the overcrowding in America’s prisons.

Overcrowding in the American prison system is a growing problem that we must tackle. The growth rate of the prison population since midyear 2002 was 3.8 percent that is 7.6 percent annually. The tremendous increase in the prison population has resulted in continuous overcrowding the last two decades. Neither prison construction not the availability of bed space to accommodate the growing prison population has kept pace. As state above, changes in sentencing legislation and crime control have played a major role in prison overcrowding. This is obvious because of the number of commitments to prison has grown disproportionately greater than increases in population, the number of crimes and the number of arrests or the number of convictions. To better understand how these changes have played such a major role in overcrowding we must look at changes that have occurred in most states.

One change is the creation of many new offenses that can result in prison terms or the revocation of probation or parole, sending offenders from the community back to prison. Some examples would be the newly created laws against stalking, as well as laws that make it a felony to intentionally transmit Aids.

There have also been new rulings regarding penalties that now make prison terms mandatory for some offenses not previously associated with incarceration, such as DWI or DUI and certain drug convictions. Judges can no longer use discretion in deciding which punishment the offender should receive. A finding of guilty mean that incarceration for a set term is automatic. These same laws prohibit probation for certain offenders. An example is in California, legislation has restricted or eliminated the possibility of probation for arson, specific sex offenses, not limited to child molestation and residential burglary.

Most states have lengthened prison terms associated with some convictions, particularly if certain weapons (aggravated crimes), or types of victims (children, elderly, handicapped) were involved, or if certain quantitative amounts of drugs were present. These “special circumstances” are said to enhance the seriousness of the crime.

We have also seen many laws directed toward repeat offenders, with the passage of the habitual felon laws in which life sentences are possible for offenders convicted for a third time of a similar felony. Previously, only the maximum sentence allowed for that particular felony was permitted. The life sentence is a cumulative punishment for what the courts have called a “criminal career”.

Many modifications and alterations were made for other sentences as well. For example, felons may be given sentences of life in prison without parole. Previously, all prisoners, after a designated time, became eligible for parole, regardless of whether or not they were actually granted the release. Many modifications of existing parole eligibility requirement force offenders to serve more time before becoming eligible for parole. Alterations to the “good time” statues have occurred letting prisoners accumulate less time for good behavior and thus taking longer to acquire credits toward parole eligibility or discharge of the sentence.

Although exact cost associated with overcrowding cannot be determined, we can look at present expenses incurred by prison and anticipate the increases as the system takes on more and more inmates. Currently, taxpayers spend between $30,000 to $50,000 per inmate per year to maintain the state and federal correctional systems.

That includes the operating costs and the cost of new construction. Depending on the level of security and the geographic region of the United States, it can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $130,000 to build each new bed space. The cost range was around $56,000 in 1992. Four out of five capital outlay dollars in construction, however, go for building expenses other than the housing area itself. Construction costs are only the down payment of a prison’s total cost to society.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons explains the operating cost for a prison over its practical life span at about fifteen to twenty times the original construction cost. Cost per inmate per day varies from state to state, and within each state from prison unit to prison unit. The units with greater security or larger amounts of medical and psychiatric treatment services will, of course, be more expensive to build and operate. Personnel is the major operating expense, usually accounting for an average of 75 percent of an agency’s total operating budget.

The results of overcrowding are serious deprivation in the quality of life for everyone in a correctional institution. Even though we have build hundreds of new prisons and expanded facilities in the last ten years, the average amount of space per inmate has decreased over 10 percent. Stretching resources beyond their capacity is something the courts watch carefully when monitoring prison conditions. Overcrowding may be measured in shortages of basic necessities, such as space, sheets, hot water, clothing and food. Vocational, educational, and recreational programs may become seriously overloaded. Medical services and supplies may be insufficient, thereby posing health risks. Throughout the total system, high inmate to staff ratios lead to poor supervision and scheduling difficulties, which result in less inmate activity and greater safety risks for both the employee and the prisoner.

The nature of a crowded environment itself may have serious effect on the health and well being of inmates. Noise and the lack of privacy associated with crowding may contribute to emotional stress and the development of mental health problems. Studies have shown that crowding may increase the number of disciplinary infractions per inmate. Inmates in densely populated units may suffer from higher blood pressure. It has also been concluded that, as density of the population increases, so does the rate of mortality in inmates over the age of forty-five (Paulus 1988). Common conditions such as the spreading of colds, sexually transmitted diseases, and other infectious diseases are increased in overcrowded areas.

Many studies have claimed the rate of psychiatric commitments and suicides reveal increases for inmate in crowded living areas. Research has also linked higher subsequent rates of criminal behavior to inmates from institutions that were overcrowded. Increases in violence, particularly staff and inmate assaults, are associated with overcrowded conditions as well. It is argued that living too close together heightens tempers and aggression, leading most likely to confrontations.

The nation’s courts are sentencing and admitting more offenders in America’s prisons than the facilities can hold. The Government Accounting Office reported for fiscal year 1992-1993, twenty-five state correctional systems requested funds for eighty-five new facilities that would add over fifty-six thousand new prison beds. Texas alone asked for $600 million to finance the construction of twenty-five thousand new beds. The American Correctional Association guidelines call for a standard cell area of sixty square feet for inmates spending no more than ten hours per day in their cell. In many prisons, inmates are double bunked in cells designed for one or sleep on mattresses in unheated prison gyms or on the floors of dayrooms, halls or basements. Some are housed in tents, other sleep in the same bunk different times of the day. Many taxpayers do not consider overcrowding a problem because they believe that discomfort should be a part of the punishment.

Research has only recently begun to explore the effects of crowding beyond those on individual inmates, groups of inmates and the programs and services they receive. Information is still needed on the effect crowding has on the staff, on the management strategies, on budgeting and government responses, on facility and equipment durability, and on the cost of operations under various strategies to reduce overcrowding.

In 1996, nearly half (48.4 percent) of the respondents surveyed by the Survey Research Program (College of Criminal Justice, Sam Houston State University) thought that the most important goal of prison should be rehabilitation, while only 14.6 percent saw punishment as the most important goal of prison. One third thought that crime prevention/deterrence was the most important goal of prisons. Throughout most of American history correctional policy makers have positioned rehabilitation among the most important correctional goals. Treatment has appeared in many forms and clearly many ideas have proven ultimately to be unfounded.

The earliest institutional treatment models, for example, place heavy reliance on the qualities of institutional life combined with spiritual contemplation as a source of individual reformation. The earliest penal facilities were founded under a Quaker influence supported either solitary confinement or a congregate model that imposed total silence upon its prisoners. It was assumed that in both systems would be isolated from the evil influences and subject to strong discipline. The outcome they believed would be a responsible citizen who had seen the error of their ways. More realistically, the practice of solitary confinement produced many instances of mental illness before its use was abandoned. Historians have referred to this period as a time in which harshness was too quickly assumed to be discipline, an abusive discipline that did more to breaks spirits rather than reform them.

A more positive approach was introduced shortly after the Civil War and put into practice in 1876 at the Elmira Reformatory for youthful offenders in New York. That program used ideas that we recognize today a related to operant conditioning. Borrowing from earlier Australian reforms, know as the “mark”, system reformers planned a model in which inmates could earn transfers to less secure prisons and ultimately their release through good behavior and work performance. The reformatory system is known for the contemporary introduction of the indeterminate sentence and post-release supervision or parole. This afforded the correctional professionals the opportunity to predicate a release decision based upon an inmate’s satisfactory rehabilitation. The Elmira Reformatory, and other built shortly after in other states, can be recognized for their educational and other programs designed to facilitate change instead of passively waiting for inmates to see the need for change.

More intensive efforts appeared from 1900 to 1920, when progressive reformers seized upon the new clinical approaches offered by social and psychological sciences. The social wisdom of the day encouraged public education and the belief that social ills, including crime, could be prevented. Science, particularly social, medical and psychological sciences, also asserted that causes could be identified, diagnosed, and ultimately treated. The field of criminology during those years was characterized by the work of the positivists, researchers who found the roots of crime to be in biological traits and psychological ills, rather than in the rational choices made by offenders. The criminals, in other words, were ill. These progressive reformers sought to first diagnose the cause of crime and then treat them.

They envisioned prisons like hospitals and diagnostic centers. Perhaps the greatest impact the progressive reformers had was in the development of a less adversarial and more rehabilitative ideology. While more treatment staff was later added, prisons did not become hospitals; maybe because public investment in treatment was never sufficiently achieved. Nevertheless, the goals of individualized treatment, classification, and community corrections, and substitution of humane, reform oriented programs of punishment dominated correctional policy throughout the first half of the twentieth century as rehabilitation enjoyed unchallenged status until mid-century as the correctional priority.

Rehabilitation was also helped by two presidential crime commissions and resulting legislation that provided state and federal seed money for many new crime prevention and treatment initiatives. These promotions, however, were short lived. Conservatives were lamenting a high crime rate and asserting that deterrence and incapacitation, the “get tough” approaches to crime, were more effective. In the mid 1970’s a review of the treatment evaluation literature by Robert Martinson (1974) concluded that rehabilitation had achieved “no appreciable effect on recidivism”. The Martinson report was indeed supportive of the subsequent swing to a far more conservative crime agenda. Over the next twenty years there was a move away from indeterminate sentencing toward determinate or presumptive sentencing models or guidelines. A drop in available money for new demonstration programs and cuts in many existing correctional treatment budgets only added to the conservative appeal. American prisons became frightfully overcrowded growing by 168 percent from 1980 to 1991 largely on the political promises to “get tough” on crime.

However, correction agencies did not totally give up on rehabilitation. A growing drug problem required new strategies for dealing with drug and alcohol addictions. Treatment research and evaluation efforts continued and began to show more favorable results. While current use of treatment and rehabilitation technology is not what it should be in actual practice, most rehabilitation scholars conclude that a good deal has been learned over the past decades about specific strategies that work.

Rehabilitation is synonymous with interventions or treatment. Sometimes rehabilitation might more accurately be called “habilitation”. “Habilitation”, in this sense refers to the offender whose behavior is the result of not having received the skills or personal qualities needed to live a life free from crime. The Palmer Model (1992) is a rehabilitation program model, which has shown favorable results. Whether speaking of rehabilitation, habilitation, intervention services, or treatment we are referring to distinct, correctional programs that a) change or modify the offender or help them modify themselves or b) change or modify life circumstances and improve social opportunities.

Such methods should utilize, develop or redirect the powers and mechanisms of the individual’s mind and body in order to enhance the ability to cope and grow. Palmer excludes from his definition any correctional options that try to reduce, physically traumatize, disorganize or devastate the mind or body by means such as dismemberment or electroshock techniques. He includes measures that try to affect the individual’s future behavior, attitudes toward self, and interactions with other by focusing on such factors and conditions as the individual’s adjustment techniques, interest, skills, personal limitations and/or life circumstances.

Often correctional options are put forward as measures toward reducing future crime, while most options offer no real plan to change targeted criminal behavior. Halfway houses by themselves do not constitute treatment unless there is a treatment program in place. The distinction between treatment, control and custody may be a confusing one for policy makers and others, because one seldom hears of new correctional options put forward without some promise, to either solve the crime problem, or reform the offenders. Boot camps, for example, have been touted as short-term treatment programs for first time offenders, particularly drug offenders. But the military regimen has little basis in any treatment model, and often no interventions are specifically targeted to the drug problem. In the same fashion, intermediate sanctions such as intensive probation, house arrests, and electronic monitoring serve a custody and control function rather than one of treatment.

There are many types of correctional rehabilitation programs. Rehabilitation may occur in mental health and substance abuse, educational or vocational programs. Some might also include spiritual programs, although there is very little research devoted to religious programs used for rehabilitation.

Mental health programs comprise a wide array of strategies. In rare cases, an institution may provide in-depth psychotherapy for seriously troubled inmates. Such approaches would deal with internalized conflicts, anxieties, phobias, depression, uncontrollable anger, neurosis and other serious mental health problems. Many factors such as early abuse, trauma, abandonment or dysfunctional family like could cause these problems. Strategies known as “here and now” treatment models are however far more common approaches to treating or counseling prison inmates.

As the names suggests “here and now” programs assist clients in dealing with current issues in their lives, such as how poor attitudes might influence work performance. “Here and now” strategies include behavioral programs, social learning approaches and cognitive therapies. The “here and now” approach is preferred for a number of reasons. One is cost; much less the in-depth psychotherapy and does not require the use of highly skilled clinicians.

Correctional personnel holding a bachelor’s or a master’s degree can be trained to use Reality Therapy and behavioral approaches. Also “here and now” strategies are more apt to deal with observable behavior that with the more abstract, subconscious processes that are the subject of psychoanalysis. Finally, “here and now” strategies work well in-group settings. In fact, most treatment approaches in the corrections area are group-counseling programs, necessitated by the large prison population and the limited resources. This is not necessarily a disadvantage, because group treatments offer more than just money savings. Group cohesiveness and peer influence can be vehicles for change in themselves. One other thing is group approaches afford an opportunity for social interaction that cannot take place in individual counseling situations.

Education and competence of prison inmates speaks strongly of the need for prison educational programs. In 1984 a staggering forty-two percent of the incarcerated adult population functioned below a sixth grade academic level. Over half of the inmate population appears to lack basic reading skills. Many would qualify for special educational programs, especially those for the learning disabled. Even with these tragic statistics and the fact that academic and vocational education has long been identified as an important goal of correctional agencies and correctional professional organizations, the status of educational programs in American prisons is not a commendable one. Adult populations are largely under-served and program effectiveness is questionable.

The most common programs in today’s prison are those that address academic deficiencies. Adult basic literacy programs or Adult Basic Education programs for example promote literacy and address the basic academic deficiencies. Such programs can be self-paced and require the use of programmed materials rather than classroom instruction, thus are cost efficient by using outside volunteers and other inmates to facilitate instruction. General Education Diploma (GED) classes are available in most adult correctional settings. Participation in these programs for adults is usually voluntary and part time. Both the GED and the basic education programs are sometimes criticized for their failure to stress important like skills and competencies. GED for example is said to be a test-driven model used to certify rather than to educate. This criticism extends to other areas of prison education.

Vocational education programs are faulted for their failure to teach inmates marketable job skills; those that would prepare inmates to enter the work force. Many of today’s fields have become much more technical in recent years, and the correctional agencies cannot afford to keep up. These advances and the machinery needed to train inmates in their applications is cost prohibited. Women’s programs are also criticized for emphasizing traditional women’s jobs, which usually equate to lower pay. Many of the women prisoners are single mothers with a real need for higher paying non-traditional jobs. Finally, careers that require licenses or apprenticeships are not well suited to prison, because prison terms are often too short to meet a typical apprenticeship period.

By 1978, the federal prison system was operating thirty-three drug treatment units. Although many programs today have been severely limited by budget cuts, attempts have been made to involve not only those inmates under court order to receive treatment but also those who volunteer for treatment. Still, only eleven percent of federal inmates are involved in drug abuse programs. A survey of 277 prison facilities in 1991 determined that about one-third of all inmates participated in some type of drug treatment program. Most had been involved in-group counseling; others were in self-help programs, and some received in-patient services.

In prison most common program formats are group therapy, self-help, and drug education programs. Education programs can be offered in short segments, and reach large audiences for a lower cost. But these programs have been criticized for using scare tactics or for not acknowledging the realities that make drug use attractive to those with troubled lives. Drug education is most effective on a very young population who has not yet used drugs, and this profile does not describe most incarcerated offenders. One of the biggest criticisms of prison treatment programs is that they offer fewer services for shorter periods of time than those of outside programs. Outside programs are more likely to involve family and to provide follow up referral as well as components for instance as job counseling, education, and vocational training.

When paroled, continued drug use many result in re-incarceration. In 1990 drug related parole violations in California accounted for thirty-two percent of returns to prison. Several studies have linked substance abuse treatment while incarcerated with later success on parole. Unfortunately many programs do not follow up on their participants to evaluate their success. Four programs that have had a relatively low rate of recidivism were reviewed in 1989. The shared characteristics included offering a wide range of activities, teaching practical life skills, using nontraditional correctional employees who were realistic about the program goals, and formal and informal follow up with participants after release. Spending more time in treatment also appeared to be related to lower arrest rates and successful completion of parole.

Recent correctional history shows us that treatment endeavors can be toppled quickly by those who question their effectiveness. When these doubts are voiced in the context of an unfavorable political climate, the results can be devastating. Yet one favorable outcome of the discouraging setbacks to correctional rehabilitation has been approximately two decades of research designed to check the accuracy of the unfavorable reviews.

Clearly the most valuable contribution to our knowledge in this area comes from the advent of meta-analyses, in which the results of many studies are statistically aggregated and assessed as one sample. Across these studies, findings typically show that effective programs reduced recidivism rates by approximately twenty percent. Generally, 25 to 35 percent of the experimental treatment programs studied achieved positive results. The meta-analyses, along with several extensive reviews of the literature, also identify the treatments most likely to succeed. These include behavioral, cognitive behavioral, life skills, family intervention and some multi-modal approaches.

The meta-analyses also show us that the treatment modality is only one of the factors that differentiate a successful intervention from an unsuccessful one. Programmatic characteristics also have an impact. These characteristics include:

1. Whether the program is well matched to its clients.

2. Dosage, or how much of an intervention is received.

3. Therapeutic integrity.

4. Administrative management style.

5. Provision of a relapse prevention component.

6. Whether the program was designed according to theoretical model.

In an unfavorable, punishment-focused political climate, the relative success of rehabilitation appears to go unnoticed. Politicians quell the public’s fear of crime with promises of yet stricter incarceration policies, more police officers, and occasional digressions into the latest correctional fad. Sadly, the singular focus on punishment is not purely representative of public sentiment. While it is true that the public favors “get tough” policies, support for rehabilitation is also strong. A series of surveys conducted on the past decade show that indeed the public is punishment oriented, but, the surveys also clearly show the public experts treatment-oriented programs to accompany incarceration. In other words, “Get tough on crime” does not mean “to warehouse” or to ignore treatment and education.

As we continue in this new millennium we must make some important choices about what we want our prison system to be. It is clear to me that we can no longer sit back and continue to let our prisons mainly be “warehouses” for keeping those individuals whose problems we choose not to recognize or treat. The reduction in the recidivism rate by twenty percent when effective programs are used is reason enough for the American public to demand that rehabilitation become more of a focused priority to prison officials as well as politicians and also a priority with the politicians.

We are incarcerating large numbers of people who actually have a disease, since most experts consider substance abuse a disease and not criminal behavior. Until we concentrate on curing the problems of society that cause most of these criminals to adopt behavior that they are being punished for, we will continue to see a rise in the numbers incarcerated. I believe rehabilitation can lower the number of repeat offenders if we are willing to redirect the focus of our prisons. It will not be easy and it will not be cheap; but it will be worth it for the good of society as a whole. Rehabilitation of criminals can be greatly improved, and the successful measurement documented by implementing a very old but successful scientific theory of “cause and effect”.

Work Cited

Begun, Abbey M. B.A. ed., Jacobs, M.A. ed., Quiram, Jacquelyn F. B.A. ed. Prisons and Jails a Deterrent to Crime? Information Plus 1999 ed.

Davis, Bertha. Instead of Prison. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Franklin Watts publishing 1986.

Lacayo, Richard, “Law and Order, Crime rates are down across the U.S.-Some dramatically. Is this a blip or a Trend? With so many factors in play, it may be a bit of both. 15 January, 1996 Volume 147, No. 3


McShane, Marilyn. D. ed., Williams III, Frank P. ed. Encyclopedia of American Prisons. New York and London, Garland Publishing,Inc., 1996

Menninger, Karl. The Crime of Punishment. New York, Viking Press, 1968

Oliver, Marilyn Tower. Prisons, Today’s Debate. New Jersey, Enslow Publishing, 1997

United States. Federal Bureau of Prisons. Inmate Programs and Services.


United States. Prison Statistics. Bureau of Justice Statistics Prison Statistics


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